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Theatre Review: Recalling Mother is a show of empathy and love

Singapore — Fittingly, The Esplanade Presents The Studios series for this year (presented around the theme The Fiction of Memory) opens with a play that is, at once, a revival of a previous production and about the act of remembrance itself. Written, performed and directed by Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed, Recalling Mother was first staged in 2006 and again in 2009 and 2015. 10 years on, Wong and Noorlinah return once more to share and swap personal and intimate stories of their relationships with their ageing mothers.

Singapore — Fittingly, The Esplanade Presents The Studios series for this year (presented around the theme The Fiction of Memory) opens with a play that is, at once, a revival of a previous production and about the act of remembrance itself. Written, performed and directed by Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed, Recalling Mother was first staged in 2006 and again in 2009 and 2015. 10 years on, Wong and Noorlinah return once more to share and swap personal and intimate stories of their relationships with their ageing mothers.

The production is haunted by its previous iterations. Audio excerpts from the 2009 staging and the occasional video projection are used to herald several transitions between scenes. But each staging of Recalling Mother has been more than a re-visitation of old material. With every staging since 2006, Wong and Noorlinah have updated, rewritten and re-imagined the play almost in its entirety. New stories have been added reflecting their mothers’ experiences with age and the onset of dementia; while stories they felt they were not ready to tell before begin to be told in full.

It is a play that is likely to grow in poignancy if you’ve watched previous ones. Yet even the first time viewer is likely to come away seeing his or her own relationship with his or her mother mirrored in Wong’s and Noorlinah’s reenactments of motherly eccentricities, while the duo’s musings on how education and language have created an unbridgeable gulf between their mothers’ life experiences and their own (“Her hands; her lines. My hands; my lines”) are likely to ring true for many — even those who may no longer face a linguistic divide between their parents and themselves.

While the focus of the original 2006 staging may have been the gulf between the generations, this 2016 production (having the benefit of the performers’ and their mothers’ increasing age) is not dominated by feelings of outrage or exasperation. Instead, its tone is one of wistfulness, forgiveness and no small amount of empathy. In one poignant scene, Noorlinah asks us to consider how difficult it is for a 90-year-old to carry out the simple act of getting out of bed, while in another Wong (playing her mother) stares blankly into space while Noorlinah circles her in a long silent moment. When that moment is later reenacted, however, Noorlinah places herself in Wong's mother’s shoes and voices what she thinks must be the thoughts that must be running through Wong's mother’s head. It is a touching and powerful show of empathy and love.

As a daughter attempting to define my own relationship with my mother, the understanding and forgiveness on display in this production are both alien and enviable. Perhaps, with time, I too might also come to see my own mother as more than a diamond in the rough (an image effectively captured by Petrina Dawn Tan’s simple set dominated by a large silver diamond on the stage backdrop) and as a “gem of my mother”. This play, and Wong and Noorlinah’s experiences, seem to indicate there is hope for us — mothers and daughters alike — yet.

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